There are those faithful who will never surrender their little white Apple earbuds. To them we say: Wear proudly. But for the rest, for those who don’t want to deal with sub-par sound, earbuds flopping around and having to hunt for foam covers, come with us — and we’ll show you a world of possibilities.
Of the five sets in our shootout, four are canalphones that fit in the ear canal — which right off the bat means they’ll do a significantly better job of staying in your ears than ordinary earbuds (like Apple’s); they’ll also seal out some of the ambient noise around you. The fifth set, the Urbanears Medis, is technically an earbud but employs a unique method of staying put. All beat the Apple buds for sound.
1. MEElectronics SP51 ($60)
The SP51 is the chameleon of the group — its sound signature is customizable via three sets of metal caps that screw into the rear of each earpiece; sounds like schtick, but it really worked. Each set is ported to provide a different sound: The smoke-colored set delivers a bassy tone, the black are extra bassy and the silver are the most neutral of the bunch.
Fit was good, and sound quality tied with the UE350s for best-in-show. But those little caps are easy to lose (we lost two during testing) and costly to replace at $25 per complete set. That, a slightly higher price and no mic or controls (the SP51P adds both for an extra $10) knock the SP51s down a notch.
2. Skullcandy Fix In-Ear ($70)
These obviously weren’t designed for the faint of heart. The in-your-face blood-red housings, omnipresent skull emblem and faux carbon-fiber case scream to be worn by adrenaline junkies (or the fashion-bereft, depending on your point of view).
Skullcandy’s claim that the Fix was designed to stay put through crazy skateboard stunts was accurate; considering how comfortable they were, the set was surprisingly difficult to dislodge. Sound matched everything else about the Fix: It oozed bass and attitude, but was harsh with more delicate music. The swashbuckling set likely to pop for these should find the balance appealing. And yeah, they’re the most expensive of the bunch, but they’re also one of only two here with mic, playback/phone *and* volume controls.
3. Incase Capsule ($50)
Like the Fix, the Capsule comes with a full control suite: microphone, call/playback and volume. Unlike the Fix, the Caspule is cute, and won’t make others think you regularly chug a case of Mountain Dew for breakfast. It’s also $20 less, and surprisingly, the bassiest of the bunch. Unfortunately, that bass comes at the expense of clarity — this set was slightly more muddy than even the Fix. Still, fantastic controls, comfortable eartips, tangle-free cables and a killer price makes this set a great all-rounder — especially for bass-lovers.
4. Ultimate Ears 350 ($50)
This is the stop for audiophiles on a budget. The UE350s tied with the SP51s for best sound — in this case, clear and vibrant, with a bias toward bass. No, you’re not going to get the amazing clarity or balance of, say, the armature-powered, $120 UE 600vi — but the 350’s sound is very difficult to beat at this price. The tradeoff: a lack microphone or controls (the 350vi ads them for $10 more).
5. Urbanears Medis ($50)
The Medis uses a unique system of interchangeable rubber bumpers that, with the right fit, wedge the earpieces in the ear. The speakers sit prety much where buds would in the ear; but the wedged fit is extremely effective at keeping them from slipping out — They’re not going anywhere.
I’ve read reviews around the web that claim mediocre sound; odd, because the set’s meaty drivers deliver the goods, both in bass and clarity (though they’re sensitive to placement, which could account for the discrepancy). They don’t perform as well as canalphones; on the plus side, they won’t isolate the user from the environment, or unnerve those who don’t like shoving foreign objects into their ear canals.
A microphone, call/playback controls (no volume controls) and a tangle-free cord make the Medis even more user-friendly. Finally, the Medis comes in more vibrant colors than an acid trip — but no case to protect that retina-burning exterior.